We eat a lot of crap in this country that other nations won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.  Here’s ten nasty food additives that have been banned in other countries… but so far, the FDA says they’re just fine.

  1. Potassium bromate: Potassium bromate gets added to commercial bread products to help the dough hold together and rise higher, and it is also approved by the FDA for use in malting barley. Some studies indicate that potassium bromate may be carcinogenic, and link it to nervous system and kidney damage.  A few weeks ago I also wrote about possible causes for the hypothyroid epidemic, and this is one of them – due to the location of bromine on the periodic table, it behaves very much like iodine, thus potentially interfering with the production of thyroid hormone. It is banned in Canada, China and the EU.
  2. Brominated Vegetable Oil: Along those lines, BVO shows up in a number of beverages, such as Mountain Dew, Fresca, and some flavors of Powerade (though it was recently removed from Gatorade). It acts as an “emulsifier,” helping to distribute the flavor and prevent layers of chemical separation. Again, bromine is linked to thyroid trouble (see #1), tremors, depression, confusion, and several kinds of cancer (according to Mayo Clinic). Brominated Vegetable Oil is banned in the EU and Japan.
  3. rBGH and rBST: These are growth hormones given to about one in six dairy cows in the U.S. to increase milk production.  These hormones have been known to cause inflammation in the cows’ breast tissue, augmenting the need for antibiotics. Dairy cows consume about 70% of this nation’s antibiotics both for this reason, as well as to offset the unhealthy conditions in which they are maintained.  The reason this is bad news: bacteria are smart.  Antibiotics may kill off most of a given strain, but the ones that survive are the ones that are resistant, and then they reproduce… which is the reason why we’re having more and more trouble with antibiotic-resistant bacteria these days.  Additionally, the milk produced by cows treated with these hormones has a higher concentration of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), linked to various kinds of hormonal cancers. rBGH and rBST are banned in Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the EU and Canada.  
  4. Arsenic: Yeah. We eat that stuff, albeit indirectly: we feed it to our chickens in order to prevent parasites, bulk up and improve the color of the poultry meat, and decrease the chickens’ feed consumption.  The result is high levels of inorganic arsenic in the poultry we buy, which is carcinogenic (according to Johns Hopkins). (Seriously, who thought of this?!) Arsenic is banned in the EU.
  5. Food Coloring: Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6: These are typically found in processed things you shouldn’t be eating anyway, like sodas, candy, and certain baked goods, although Red 40 can also be found in processed sausage.  Collectively these are associated with allergies, brain tumors, bladder and testicular cancer, thyroid tumors, adrenal tumors, kidney tumors, ADD/ADHD and hypersensitivity reactions. Yellow 5 is especially nasty, found in boxed mac and cheese and cheddar flavored crackers… which, outside the U.S., are instead made with safer alternatives like paprika extract, beetroot, and annatto. If your kid has ADD/ADHD, get them off food dyes like ASAP! Food dyes are banned in Norway, Austria, and contain warnings in the UK and the EU. 
  6. BHA and BHT: used as a preservative for fat, this has been linked with cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters (so, for good reason, it’s a suspected carcinogen in humans).  Its cousin, Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) may be linked with cancer as well.  Often these two are used with Propyl Gallate, a preservative of fats as well, also a suspected carcinogen. BHA may also induce allergic reactions and hyperactivity in some sensitive patients.  These are banned Japan, in the UK (in infant foods), and in parts of the EU.
  7. Olestra/Olean: These fat substitutes are found in “fat-free” chips primarily. (Note: any packaged food that boasts “fat-free,” “sugar-free” or “fortified” usually makes up for it with a cocktail of chemicals. AVOID.) Like their “sugar-free” cousins, sugar alcohols, olestra manages to taste like fat without the same impact on the body because it’s undigestible. Side effects therefore include diarrhea, cramps and leaky bowels, as well as poor absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. As if that wasn’t  bad enough, in 2011, Purdue University demonstrated that rats fed potato chips made with Olean actually gained weight.  Olestra and Olean are banned in the UK and Canada.
  8. Ractopamide: Ractopamine gets added to animal feed in the last few days before slaughter to promote leanness and increase muscle mass. But because the animals consume it so close to the end, as much as 20% of the drug makes its way into the meat we buy at the grocery store.  And in us, ractopamide has been linked to hyperactivity, behavioral changes, and cardiovascular problems. It has been banned in the EU, Russia, mainland China & the Republic of China (Taiwan).
  9. GMO crops. The two biggest are soybeans and corn – pretty much if you buy these in the US, they’re genetically engineered unless they say otherwise.  However, recently the Hawaiian papaya joined the list.  I wrote an entire article on the hazards of GMO foods here. GMO foods are banned to varying degrees in the EU, the UK, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Phillippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil, and Paraguay.
  10. Canthaxanthin: fed to farm-raised salmon in order to restore the pink color they have naturally in the wild, this chemical (produced by the pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-La Roche) has been linked to retinal damage. (Farmed fish is also notoriously high in heavy metals, so you shouldn’t eat it anyway.) Canthaxanthin is banned in Australia and New Zealand.

The take-home messages:

  • If you drink dairy, at the very least, pick dairy that says “No rBGH or rBST.” I’d encourage organic, because then you’re skipping the antibiotics too… not to mention encouraging more humane treatment of the animals.
  • Buy your chicken organic, or at least free-range.
  • Buy your meat organic, or at least free-range.
  • Buy your fish wild-caught (and not Atlantic either, since these are high in heavy metals. Go for Pacific or Alaskan).
  • If it says “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” or anything else “-free,” be skeptical. And probably don’t eat it.
  • Avoid sugary, processed beverages.  Especially avoid sugary, processed beverages laden with carcinogenic chemicals and food dyes.
  • You can sum all this up as follows: if it contains a chemical you don’t recognize, do not put it in your mouth.